The Case for Slow Reading

Pile of BooksThere was a spitwad fight over on another blog site the other day.  A reader who returns 55% of all the books that she buys from Amazon was upset because Amazon suspended her return privileges.

Lots of readers and writers picked that up and ran with it.

I won’t link to the site, because the point that struck me as the most interesting in the entire discussion was passed over completely by the combatants.

The barred reader had bought 245 books this year that she kept.  That means, with a return rate of 55%, she has bought and started to read (or read) 445 books!!

She admits in the blog post itself that she gets through a book in under two hours.


Now, I’m a fast reader, but there is no way possible I can get through an entire 50,000+ word novel in two hours.

I remember when I was still living at home, my mother would buy entire cartons of secondhand Mills & Boon novels (Harlequin Silhouette, to you).  Now, she would get through one of those novels in a couple of hours.  Back then, a Mills & Boon novel was very nearly exactly 50,000 words.

But here’s the thing:  She wasn’t reading the books, exactly.  She was almost scanning the text, slowing down for the interesting bits, then flipping pages to the next interesting scene.

There’s not too many books that come in around 50,000 words.  That’s pretty light.  Most books are closer to 80,000 words.

There was another thought that struck me concerning devouring a book in two hours:  I’ve had reviews where the reviewer has mixed up the story-line, or got character names dead wrong, or complained about missing or confusing storylines.  These are the outlier reviews, the unusual ones.  I have to wonder if these overworked and under-appreciated reviewers are trying to whittle down their mountainous backlog by sprinting through a novel every two hours.

Elegant Clock FaceThen, I have received email from readers asking questions about books for which the answers are in the book itself.  What happened to the bad guy?  Why did the hero end up xxxxx?  If these readers are screaming through a book at Mach 10 with their hair on fire, then it’s quite possible they’ve rolled right over the implications and consequences of different events in the plot.

Now, I don’t know for sure that these reviewers and readers are reading at a ferocious rate.  But there’s a good chance some of them are.  The barred reader who complained about Amazon is not the first I’ve heard boasting about their seemingly inexhaustible appetite for fiction.  The readers I’ve met who read at the same rate are very proud of their total book count.

Unfortunately, I think they’re missing the bigger picture.  It’s not about the number of books you read.  Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable exercise.  Getting hooked by a book is one of life’s great pleasures and coming up for air after The End is a world view-altering experience.    But how can you possibly get to experience any of that if you’re scanning the book?

Some stories (I suspect most of them, actually) are not made for fast reading.  Perhaps the greater depths of the characters are not spelled out in so many words.   Perhaps the plot is a complicated one, where some of the action happens behind the scenes and is only reported by the characters.  Or perhaps the consequences of a plot development are indirect but the story jumps straight into that consequence in the next scene.

For instance:  In one scene the hero might refer in passing to an old girlfriend who dumped him because of his CIA work.  Three scenes later, he’s wounded in the line of action.  But that’s all you get to see in the story.  You don’t see what would happen next:  The hero leaving the CIA and moving to Oregan, bitter and mentally scarred, to spend six months rehabilitating and considering what he wants out of life.  Instead, the very next scene might jump straight to northern California, where the hero is walking into the diner where his old girlfriend works.

If you were reading very fast, you might miss the first reference to the girlfriend.  After the hero is injured, you wouldn’t stop to think about what would be the natural outcomes of such a twist.  And because you missed the girlfriend reference, the hero suddenly turning up in a diner in northern California is going to come out of left field.

You certainly wouldn’t have time to get to know the characters via all the little inferences and implications that authors leave strewn for the reader to absorb as they go along.  Authors don’t paint full pictures of either the characters or the plot.  In these days of corset-tight story-telling, and with readers so much more sophisticated in the conventions of story-telling, vast tracts of setting up scenes, flashbacks, and transitions are simply not shown.  Readers understand and fill-in for themselves the connective tissues that hold the story up.

Or they will if they aren’t skating over the surface of the story.

I’ve found that with stories that grab me hard, I almost naturally slow down to absorb and enjoy all the details.  I like a complicated story, and especially enjoy a cast of thousands, but you can’t read a story like that at a fast clip, because even if you pick up all the details that fill out and hold up the plot, you’re still missing great swathes of colour and light and movement.

It’s like looking at a finely crafted paisley print.  You glance at it fast and all you’ll see is colour and some swirls.  When you study it, thought, you see more and more detail — all the range of beautifully melded colours, the fabulous shapes and intricate filigree that makes up the print.

Here’s another example:  The Lord of the Rings movies.  You could watch those with a group of friends and thoroughly enjoy them.  But it’s only when you pay very close attention to everything happening on the screen that you start to notice the incredible amount of detail that has gone into each set and even the characters’ costumes.  The sets themselves tell their own stories.  So do the clothes.   Together with the central action, they build the symphony of the passing of ages, time and history that is one of the most powerful themes in the book.

While my own books cannot begin to compare to the richness and detail in The Lord of the Rings, it has been remarked by more than one reader and reviewer that I write complicated plots and deep characters.   Some of my series are building up to that cast of thousands I mentioned earlier.   I am almost certain that readers and reviewers who race through my stories are the ones that lose their way, miss major developments and end up confused because of it.

Wouldn’t it be better to slow down — not just for my books! — and read at a pace that lets the full bouquet of the story emerge?



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